Heading into 2012, D.C. United was primed for an improved campaign after a disappointing 2011 season which saw the team miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Bill Hamid was coming off an offseason where he trained abroad and established himself as a full U.S. national teamer. 2010 Rookie of the Year Andy Najar would continue to develop into one of the league's top wingers. Designated Player Branko Boskovic would return from injury to solidify the midfield and new DP Hamdi Salihi was expected to continue the serial goalscoring ways he displayed in Europe.
All these pieces combined with the return of 2011 MVP and Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario were all set to make United a force in the Eastern Conference.
Now, eight games into the season, Hamid, Najar, Boskovic and Salihi are backups. De Rosario has zero goals. And oh yeah, D.C. United is flying high, unbeaten in six and up to second place in the East.
How did this happen?
A good place to begin is in the back, where unheralded Joe Willis, the 50th overall selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, has wrested the starting goalkeeper position away from Bill Hamid, who was expected to become one of the league's best and a national team regular this season.
The six-foot-five Willis was initially given the starting role by default with Hamid away on U.S. Olympic qualification duty, but with a series of standout performances, the job appears to be his to lose with Hamid now healthy after suffering an injury during qualification.
“Joe is our starter right now,” head coach Ben Olsen confirmed in his press conference following the team's 4-1 win over the New York Red Bulls Sunday night.
Willis knew his prospects for playing time were slim entering the season, but he remained focused on factors he could influence.
“I just come in and focus on what I can control, and that's working hard and hopefully playing well,” he said. “At the end of the day, the coaches are going to make whatever decision they want and I can't control that. Focusing on working hard is all I can really do.”
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In midfield, Boskovic and Najar have been non-factors this season, while Danny Cruz – acquired from Houston in the offseason for allocation money – and rookie Nick DeLeon have locked down starting roles.
DeLeon has particularly impressed, scoring three goals and adding three assists in just seven games, and looks an early-season favorite for Rookie of the Year honors.
“I'm confident in my ability and I'm confident in my team” DeLeon said after the win over the Red Bulls. “I have good teammates here. They really guide me along when things get rough.”
One of the teammates guiding DeLeon is De Rosario, who, despite his lack of goals, has been a main facilitator of United attacks from his central midfield role, leading the team with four assists.
“He's a good player, he works hard and he makes stuff happen,” DeLeon said of De Rosario. “In practice, he's always telling me little things that I could do better and that I shouldn't do, so he's a big part of it (DeLeon's success) as well.”
No development in United's season may be more surprising than at the forward position, where Salihi – he of the DP contract and 53 goals in three seasons with Austria's Rapid Vienna – has yet to open his MLS account and has been replaced by Maicon Santos, who was picked up off the scrap heap after FC Dallas declined to renew his contract following the 2011 season.
Santos has chipped in with four goals, demonstrating the strength and finishing ability he's often flashed during the course of his MLS career.
“He's a handful as we've all seen so far,” Olsen said of Santos. “He always has times where he's facing the goal on his left peg, and it's a nice weapon to have.”
It hasn't all gone according to script, but if D.C. United can keep up its run of good form, Olsen will hardly be concerned about who he's leaving out of the starting 11.
“The guys who are the bigger name guys, you've seen the past few weeks that the coaches aren't afraid to leave them on the bench,” Willis said.
“At the end of the day we're a team and we're all doing this together, so whoever's paying on the field, if they’re a good player, it benefits all of us.”